Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Christmas God

The Nativity offers us a unique snapshot of God's character
Last Sunday evening I attended a candlelit carol service at a central London church, something which turned out to be a fantastic ninety minutes of beautiful choral music, stirring readings and some of my favourite Christmas hymns. However, the highlight of the service was not any of these, nor was it the experience of sitting alongside four-hundred other people in a cavernous church illuminated only by the flickering of our own individual candles. The moment that will stand out in my memory was the short but effective sermon, a humorous address which exposed what the real meaning of Christmas really is.

'He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake.' These are, of course, lyrics from a popular (secular) Christmas song, referring not to God or to Jesus but instead to the character of Santa Claus, warning children that their Christmas wishes will only come true if they are well-behaved and saintly throughout the year. These words formed the backbone of Sunday night's sermon, and despite the obvious humour and lightheartedness it was clear what point the preacher was trying to make.

Christians are very good at cutting through the secular iconography and pointing out that Christmas is, in fact, all about the birth of Christ, but do they still continue to hold onto a 'Santa Claus model' of God where we are instructed to shut up and behave, or else? Does our modern view of the Gospel bear more than a passing resemblance to the words of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, with the only difference being the punishment for disobedience? After all, Santa may have an infinite supply of lumps of coal to fill the stockings of unruly children, but God has access to a pit of fire and a state of eternal conscious torment. 'You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why...' 

The point of Sunday's sermon was that this popular characterisation of God is inaccurate and does not describe the deity who broke into this world through the birth of Jesus Christ. For many Christians, God is someone or something to be feared; in the words of the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, fundamentalists tend to view God as a 'punishing, capricious, angry bastard with a killer surveillance system.' This is certainly the 'Santa Claus model' of God that we urgently need to reject, a somewhat totalitarian figure who weighs up our actions or our adherence to certain doctrinal positions before deciding whether or not to share his Kingdom with us or throw us into his never-ending torture machine.

The problem is, this raging deity is very different from the God described in Psalm 145; here we are told that God is 'gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.' He is not a violent and controlling being who is ready to dole out disproportionate punishment on a majority of humanity, but instead he is 'good to all' and 'has compassion on all he has made.' Nowhere is this more apparent than in the life of Jesus, where God's infinite and deep love for the world takes human form, and in the Christmas story we are presented with the real face of God; not a powerful warrior, a terrifying tyrant or a heartless monster, but an innocent and vulnerable infant born into poverty in a part of the world scarred by political turmoil and upheaval.

There are some real questions about the birth narratives of Jesus that liberal Christian scholars have rightfully asked. After all, the four gospels contradict each other in their telling of the Nativity story, whilst some of the details that we take for granted today are clearly nothing more than elaborate myth put in place by the writers to emphasise the significance of Jesus. As John Shelby Spong points out, Christians in the 21st Century should not be expected to suspend their intellectual credibility in order to profess belief in a star which guided Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus like a cosmic GPS system (and that actually led them to Herod's palace anyway). Our scientific knowledge of stars renders this story impossible, whilst one must also question why so-called 'Wise Men' would decide to follow a star for miles in the first place.

However, the facts surrounding these biblical stories are less relevant than the deeper meaning that they seek to point out. In his most recent book, Brian McLaren calls on Christians to adopt a more Jewish method of reading the Scriptures, abandoning crude literalism in order to explore the 'bottomless wells of meaning' that are contained within our faith stories. By applying this approach to the readings we hear in church this Christmas, maybe we can discover (or rediscover) something of the true nature of God, the divine characteristics which are revealed in the Gospels through Christ's birth, life and death. In doing so we can take a vital step away from our traditional concepts of God, and embrace the reality of a deity who steps into a tumultuous world in order to redeem a broken humanity.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Why I was wrong on same-sex marriage

The introduction of same-sex marriage has been a huge leap forward for Britain and the United States
Just hours before same-sex marriage was legalised in Britain, I wrote an article in which I outlined my own personal opposition to this move. It was March 2014, and at the same time that numerous couples were preparing to celebrate their nuptials I was railing against this historic decision by David Cameron's government, perhaps the most significant civil rights policy in this country since homosexuality was legalised in 1967. I carefully and deliberately grounded my argument in legal and political language rather than my own personal religious convictions, but the truth of the matter was somewhat different. At the time I was an active member of a conservative evangelical church, and it was the teaching of that congregation that helped to inform and reinforce my own prejudices.

In the nearly three years since I wrote that article, I have left that church and rejected the evangelical theology that was preached from its pulpit. That isn't to say that I have turned my back on Christianity; indeed, my own religious life feels far more healthy and dynamic now than it ever did within the confines of an unquestioning and dogmatic orthodoxy. However, I can no longer call myself an evangelical, and as part of that journey away from the tradition that brought me to faith I have also rejected the institutionalised homophobia that reigns supreme in the conservative Church and that infected my own spiritual life for far too long.

In laying out my opposition to same-sex marriage back in March 2014, I explained that I 'do not hate the LGBT community' despite believing that they should not enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. The honest truth, however, is that whilst I have never hated any group of people I did believe that homosexuality was a sin. Of course I did - the Bible tells us so, or at least that's what I had been led to believe by evangelical clergy at my Christian school and several churches where I worshiped. During my time at university I joined an evangelical Anglican church where the vicar would frequently preach about the evils of same-sex relationships, and in a private conversation he even told me that if a same-sex couple were to attend his church he would refuse them Holy Communion.

It was conversations such as these which made me question the central tenets of the evangelical faith that my church espoused, and eventually I came to realise just how toxic and intolerant this brand of Christianity really is. Sadly, this homophobia is all too prevalent in the Christian Church and was certainly not confined to my own congregation; indeed, earlier this year the announcement that the Bishop of Grantham, Nicholas Chamberlain, is gay sparked a venemous backlash from the conservative Anglican group GAFCON, who described Chamberlain's appointment as a 'major error' that represented a 'serious cause for concern for biblically orthodox Anglicans around the world.'

The real cause for concern in the Anglican Church is not an unquestioning acceptance of socially liberal norms, but rather a lack of radicalism which allows conservative groups such as GAFCON to be the homophobic tail that wags the Anglican dog. This trend has been apparent for years, as conservative evangelicals have been allowed to exercise undue influence over the wider Church. In 2003, Rev Jeffrey John was forced to stand down after being nominated as the new Bishop of Reading following a vicious backlash from conservatives who believed that Dr John's sexuality was a disqualifying factor that could split the worldwide Anglican Church, and although the US Episcopal Church showed admirable bravery in appointing the openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire the following year, Bishop Robinson was singled out for vilification throughout his nine years in this post, even being excluded from the 2008 Lambeth Conference, a decennial meeting of the world's Anglican bishops.

Institutional homophobia is not limited to the Anglican Church, and in many evangelical denominations the situation is far worse. Whereas mainline Protestants have tended to engage in a spineless fudge in order to placate their more conservative members, evangelicals and Roman Catholics have tended to practice overt hostility towards the LGBT community. In the same way that the Christian Church gave its endorsement to the persecution of Muslims, scientists and African Americans in previous centuries, its widespread homophobia is its biggest source of shame today, something which urgently requires repentance on the part of Church leaders. Until that happens, more and more LGBT Christians will be hurt and damaged as they feel the rejection of their friends, clergy and congregations.

For my own part, I wholeheartedly repent of the views that I put forward on the eve of the legalisation of same-sex marriage. I know that they were never the product of hate or malice, but rather a young and impressionable mind that had been manipulated by several years of teaching from evangelical clergy with a strange obsession with homosexuality. Nevertheless, I also know that I was not the only person whose views were shaped by those words that were spoken from the pulpit every Sunday morning, and I also know the great damage that they did to others who sat quietly in the pews feeling like they did not belong in that congregation. Evangelical clergy may think they are flexing their spiritual muscles by stating their wholehearted opposition to same-sex relationships, but these attitudes are not some form of Christian machismo grounded in a sound reading of the Scriptures. Instead they simply point towards the small-mindedness of fundamentalism, a creed which is more comfortable picking on the LGBT community rather than sharing and practising the universal love of Christ.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

How the Christian Right went wrong

Jerry Falwell Jr (left) is one of many evangelical leaders to endorse Donald Trump
For decades, evangelical Christians in the United States have consistently voted for Republican candidates, a trend that dates back to the anti-Catholic opposition faced by Democrats Al Smith and John F Kennedy and which has more recently manifested itself in the overt use of religious imagery by GOP nominees including Ronald Reagan and George W Bush. Benefiting from their socially conservative stance on divisive 'culture wars' issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and the role of religion in schools, the Republicans have been able to woo evangelicals and crystallise their support from this vital group.

In recent years, this once unbreakable relationship has come under some strain. After eight years of George W Bush in the White House, a man who wore his born-again Christianity on his sleeve more than any other President in US history, the Republican Party nominated two candidates who left the Christian Right feeling uneasy - the somewhat secular John McCain, and the devout Mormon Mitt Romney. However, it is the current Republican nominee who should, in theory, present the greatest headache for conservative evangelicals; how can the self-styled 'Moral Majority' stand with a thrice-married serial adulterer and billionaire playboy who publicly brags about his promiscuous sex life?

It is difficult to find a major party nominee in American history who has been as amoral as Donald Trump. His personal life, his business dealings and his political rhetoric all paint the picture of a selfish, greedy narcissist who judges his own success on the basis of his net worth and sexual exploits. His language is coarse and disrespectful, his relationship with the truth is uneasy, and his campaign has been based on dehumanising and delegitimising vast swathes of the American public. Anyone who cares about morality and ethics in public life can see that Trump is not worthy of the world's highest office, so why have evangelicals been taken in by this conman?

The most prominent evangelical backer of the Republican nominee has been Jerry Falwell Jr, the President of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Falwell's father, the late Jerry Falwell Sr, was one of America's most famous pastors and televangelists, attracting controversy due to his hardline views on homosexuality and his claim that God caused 9/11 to happen as divine punishment for America's accommodation of abortion and LGBT rights. Falwell Jr shares his father's fundamentalist theology, but by becoming one of Trump's leading cheerleaders he has sacrificed the integrity of the movement his father helped to build. No matter what one may think about the Christian Right (and I for one staunchly oppose the theology it promotes), it cannot be denied that Jerry Falwell Sr represented a certain integrity and sincerity of belief which has not been passed on.

It is highly unlikely that Falwell Sr would have endorsed Donald Trump for President; for all his faults, the late reverend held a coherent and uncompromising view of the world that would have prevented him from backing a twice-divorced adulterer. The same cannot be said of his son, or indeed of the wider evangelical community, with polls suggesting that two-thirds of white evangelicals intend to vote for Trump. No other religious group is backing Trump by such a large margin, a fact which exposes the hypocrisy of a movement which claims to prize values and morality over temporal concerns such as party politics.

The truth is that, for many within the Christian Right, this has never been about picking the candidate who is the best role model or who sets a standard of good moral living. As can be observed within the Church, evangelicals frequently see orthodoxy - right belief - as more important than orthopraxy - right action - despite the fact that this seems to fly in the face of the teachings of the Gospels. All the evidence we have suggests that Jesus spent his public ministry lambasting the legalism of the Pharisees and other religious authorities, and it is intriguing to consider how he would react to those Christian leaders in contemporary America who are so willing to support a candidate as hateful as Donald Trump.

In contrast, there is one religious group which has been notable in its opposition to Trump's candidacy, and it may just be enough to deny him the presidency. Utah is one of the most solidly Republican states in the country, having backed the GOP nominee in every presidential election since 1968, but this year is seeing this heavily Mormon state revolt against Mr Trump. Over 60% of Utah's population belong to the LDS Church, and unlike their evangelical friends they have refused to let traditional party allegiances override deep-seated morality. The religious and political establishment in Utah has launched an 'all-out revolt' against the excesses of the Trump campaign, and on the eve of Election Day there is a very strong possibility that this ultimate red state could be won by Evan McMullin, a Utah-born independent conservative and practicing Mormon. In an election where every electoral vote matters, defeat in the Beehive State could doom Trump's chances of reaching the White House.

Evangelicals may reject and even ridicule the eccentric theology and strict customs of the LDS Church, but they have a lot to learn from a Mormon population that has taken a stand rather than accommodating an unsuitable and unqualified candidate. In contrast, evangelical support for Trump has undermined their claim to represent the moral voice of the nation, instead highlighting their blind obsession with homosexuality and the so-called 'liberal agenda' of the Democratic Party. In doing so they have played into the hands of secularists such as Bill Maher, who claims that this election cycle has exposed evangelicals as 'the shameless hypocrites they've always been.' Maher is right to point out the negative impact that the Christian Right has had on American political and public life, but he is wrong to conclude that the failings of evangelicalism leave no room for Christian values in the political arena. The Moral Majority may have become a wizened and irrelevant 'Immoral Minority,' but it can be replaced by a better and more authentic expression of Christian values, one that focuses on bringing people together rather than tearing them apart.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Ashers verdict is a victory for authoritarianism, not equality

What should happen when religious freedom and LGBT rights clash?
The English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously summarised the beliefs of the philosopher Voltaire in the phrase 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' Hall's maxim has entered the lexicon of political philosophy, encapsulating the principle of free speech that has traditionally been at the heart of all Western democracies, yet in recent years this precept has been gradually eroded as political and judicial authorities have sought to curtail our freedoms in case they cause offence. This worrying trend reared its ugly head in Northern Ireland today, where a Belfast court ruled that a Christian-run bakery acted unlawfully by refusing to bake a cake featuring a slogan in support of same-sex marriage.

Two decades after the end of the Troubles and Northern Ireland remains the most socially conservative part of the country, a place where fire-breathing Protestants and orthodox Roman Catholics are willing to temporarily put aside generations of acrimony and division in order to form a united front against any hint of progressivism. It is therefore unsurprising that prejudice against the LGBT community remains so strong there, and Christians of every stripe must bear some of the blame for propagating such bigotry.

As a Christian myself, I believe the Church needs to urgently address its approach to the LGBT community if it is to remain relevant and fit for purpose in the 21st Century. Opposition to same-sex marriage isn't just hateful and narrow-minded, but it is also theologically unsound, relying as it does on plucking a small number of biblical texts out of the context in which they were written and manipulating their original meanings. In recent centuries the Church has publicly apologised for its past crimes, from ingrained anti-Semitism and the endorsement of slavery to the persecution of scientists who questioned the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy, and the test for the 21st Century Church will be whether it can similarly repent of the institutional homophobia that continues to plague vast swathes of Christendom.

Nevertheless, whilst I fundamentally disagree with the anti-gay attitudes of the owners of Ashers Bakery, I must also wholeheartedly defend their right to hold such views. By ruling that they were unlawful in refusing to decorate a cake with a politically motivated slogan, the courts have potentially opened the floodgates to a situation whereby businesses are compelled to comply with the wishes of their customers, even in highly distasteful circumstances.

It may be difficult to have much sympathy for the regressive views of Ashers' owners, but what about cases where a member of a minority group is the victim of this legal authoritarianism? Should a Jewish business-owner be forced to serve a Holocaust denier or a supporter of Hamas terrorism? Would the courts force a Muslim bakery to ice anti-migrant and Islamophobic slogans onto a cake? Such situations seem to be clear violations of personal conscience, potentially causing a great degree of distress and discomfort to the businesspeople involved.

The Ashers case is no different, and today's decision is therefore a sad defeat for freedom of speech and belief. As Peter Tatchell writes in The Independent, people should be free to discriminate against ideas that they disagree with, and although no business should be allowed to refuse service to LGBT customers based on their sexuality, they should also not be forced to endorse a certain view on political issues such as same-sex marriage. It is right that our society becomes more inclusive and tolerant on matters of equality and sexuality, and areas such as Northern Ireland need to reject the social conservatism that remains dominant and makes LGBT people feel like second-class citizens. However, in doing so it is crucial that we do not turn our back on the long-cherished freedoms that form the foundation of our democracy.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The evangelical War on Halloween

Why are evangelical Christians so scared of Halloween?
For most of us, October is a month of brown leaves, changing seasons and mixed feelings as the last of the summer sun is swept away in the autumnal breeze. It is also the month that concludes with the celebration of Halloween, and stores and supermarkets have already taken it upon themselves to remind us of this fact through their shelves laden with pumpkins, chocolates and costumes. For me, Halloween conjures up happy memories of school discos and the childhood rituals of apple bobbing, trick or treating and my annual Dracula outfit, and for many more children it is also a time of joy, the one day of the year where it is acceptable to amass as much candy as physically possible. Yet for the majority of evangelical Christians, this is a time of the year when an intense battle must be waged against a holiday which is a satanic assault against the Church.

As someone who was not brought up as an evangelical, I never encountered any sense of opposition to Halloween until my late-teens, by which time any opportunities for the holiday to have corrupted my childhood innocence had long passed. Nevertheless, I soon became aware of the lengths so many Christians go in order to prevent their children from engaging in the frivolities; some churches, it turns out, hold alternative light parties, an option which seems to be favoured amongst Halloween's more mainstream critics, whilst the more zealous types hand out biblical tracts to poor, unsuspecting trick or treaters in order to make them aware of the demonic festivities they are unwittingly engaging in.

It is easy to mock such responses, a reaction which is probably unfair, unkind and un-Christian, but even during my short flirtation with evangelicalism I never understood the anger that Halloween generated. No child believes that werewolves, vampires and monsters are actually real, let alone beings to be worshiped or glorified, and it therefore seems somewhat bizarre for Christians to assume that this might be the case. Halloween festivities are not pagan rituals brainwashing the young and emboldening evil, they're just an all-too rare opportunity for children to use their imaginations and engage in traditional, old-fashioned fun.

Likewise, I am sure that light parties are great fun, but is it really necessary for the Church to erect yet another barrier between themselves and the wider world? Evangelicals argue that we are called to be 'in the world, not of the world,' yet by preventing their children from participating in Halloween events with their peers they create an unnecessary restriction which can end up doing more harm than good. Are a few vampire costumes and carved pumpkins really that much of a threat to the Christian values that such churches preach, and if so then surely those churches should question why their principles are so easily undermined?

Evangelical opposition to Halloween seems to be based on a distortion of the event rather than the realities of how it is celebrated by children in the 21st Century, a fact which exposes the ignorance that a lack of engagement can create. Yes, the Bible specifically speaks out against witchcraft, sorcery and the occult, but those supernatural activities have very little discernible influence over trick or treating and apple bobbing. If we are to ban Halloween on the grounds of its pagan origins, then surely we should also rethink the way we celebrate another major festival - Christmas.

Of course there are some exceptions amongst the most hardline of fundamentalists, but the overwhelming majority of those anti-Halloween evangelicals do not refrain from decorating a Christmas tree or hanging up stockings by the fireplace, practices which have direct pagan influences. Neither do most evangelicals prevent their children from writing letters to Santa Claus or leaving a carrot out for Rudolph, despite the very un-Christian implications of such characters within the context of the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. To reject Halloween but embrace Christmas in all its secular flamboyance is an obvious display of double standards, to which the Church seems to have no answer.

Our world is full of evil, misery and despair. One only has to turn on the news to see shocking images of desperate refugees, suffering Syrian children and the numerous rapes, murders and assaults that take place on our own streets every day. The Christian Church certainly has a duty to speak out against evil, but when it does so it should turn its attention to the real evil of the world rather than a few children enjoying themselves in vampire outfits. The evangelical War on Halloween is a superstitious, reactionary impulse which distracts Christians from addressing the real problems of the world, whilst providing the Church's critics with a perfect opportunity to dismiss and ridicule people of faith.

Happy Halloween, everybody!